Citroën’s unquirky C4

Citroën’s C4 has been with us for six years now, and while never a top seller, it appears common enough on our roads for it to be considered moderately successful.  I have just spent a week in Italy driving one and while it wouldn’t have been my first choice of hire car, I was surprised how well it stood up to the job.

For quite some time Citroën has been building cars which fall short of deserving either the futuristic or just plain quirky labels we enjoyed – certainly well into the 1970s.  This has lead to one of Citroën’s main difficulties – maintaining a brand identity.  When trying to please everyone, it built vehicles like the Xantia and Xsara – which just ended up dull.  Citroën also eked out models like the Xsara Picasso well beyond their natural sell by dates, adding the feeling of drudgery to the marque.  Citroën has moved on to a new era with cars like the DS3 so should perhaps consider at least a face-lift for its long-in-the-tooth models.

The flip side to producing cars which were different is that the conformist features make them ideal as hire cars.  Anyone who has driven anything else German, French or Japanese will be able to jump behind the wheel of a Citroën and not have to hunt for the indicator stalk under the seat or the hand brake in the glove box.

So, the C4 is easy to drive.  The one I rented had the unremarkable 1.6 litre diesel, which has enough torque for four-up plus a boot load and enough power to get out of the way of enthusiastic Italian drivers on the autostrade.  The ride is supple too, absorbing the worst Italian bumps (especially those in the gutters when taking the inevitable evasive actions).  Inside, it is spacious and comfortable, although the quality of its trim is well short of that of its rivals.  Pressing fairly gently in the middle of the facia allows some undesirable flexing. 

The feature I expected to annoy me most – the central digital speedo (and silly little annotated rev counter) – didn’t take much getting used to at all.  I still prefer an analogue gauge as it feels (to me) more natural to regulate the throttle to bring the needle in line with a marked speed and monitor in peripheral vision rather than read the number, interpret it to decide whether it’s above or below the desired speed and then regulate the power accordingly.

The only other internal feature of note is the fixed hub on the steering wheel.  When the steering wheel is rotated, the central boss stays in one place, meaning all the buttons for radio, cruise control and the horn are retained in the same position.  This sounds like a great idea yet it undoubtedly added an extra level of complexity to the manufacture and in reality, it’s a bit of a pain. 

When driving, it is natural for one’s hands to remain at fixed points on the steering wheel rim on gently curving roads – using the ‘fixed input’ steering method.  Anyone familiar with steering wheel controls will also be used to sliding a thumb or finger along a spoke on the steering wheel to locate one of the controls, say for the radio volume – without removing their eyes from the road.  Except in the Citroën, the buttons aren’t necessarily anywhere near the end of the spoke.

Now this is almost acceptable most of the time.  If, however, you spend any time driving up and down single track Italian mountains with blind hairpin bends – which I did every day for a week – finding the horn button to warn potential oncoming traffic of your presence becomes a challenge in its own right.

While this might sound almost extreme, it really is necessary to drive with the window down to hear oncoming cars’ horns on these mountain roads.  Even taking into account the stereotypical Italian exuberance behind the wheel, this practice is almost religiously observed; cars’ horns can be heard right round the clock across the hills.  It was also interesting to feel the British reserve coming out initially – what if I annoy someone, or perhaps disturb them from their afternoon slumber?  A couple of days in to the holiday, though, and I was as noisy as the rest; it is the only way to survive.

So, if you don’t live in Italy, the C4 is a perfectly adequate set of wheels for people who don’t like to make much noise.

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